The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) issued its 2007 World Drug Report Tuesday, the same day as it marked its annual International Day Against Drug Abuse and Illicit Trafficking. While the UNODC claimed it was making substantial progress in the fight against drugs by "stabilizing" global drug use levels, critics pointed out that that was a far cry from UNODC's mission of substantially eradicating all drug crops by next year and that "stability" meant only the continuation of the repressive status quo.
Meanwhile, authorities in Iran, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Tanzania,
the United Arab Emirates, and Vietnam marked anti-drug day with public assemblies, educational events, and special ceremonies. In Vietnam, authorities celebrated anti-drug day by ordering a crackdown until September 26.
But once again, it was actions by China that were the most dramatic and drew the most concern from drug reform, harm reduction, and human rights activists. In past years, China celebrated anti-drug day with executions of drug trafficking offenders -- as many as 460 in recent years, according to press reports compiled by the US-based Harm Reduction Coalition.
This year, there were no anti-drug day executions reported in China. But Chinese authorities did announce death sentences for seven drug traffickers on anti-drug day eve and announced one more on anti-drug day itself.
"We have observed a declining resort to the death penalty in both the US and China," said Richard Dieter, head of Death Penalty Information Center. "Although China uses it much more than the US, they have agreed to be more discerning and review more cases in their high courts. I think we will see a decline in the death penalty in China," he predicted.
"We don't want to see drug offenders executed," said Allan Clear, head of the Harm Reduction Coalition. "But we also don't want the UN to set up this day without drugs and then have member states run out and execute people as a show of good faith. We want the UN to step up and say that is not what they intended. UN Secretary-General Moon has made comments to the effect that it should be up to member states, and we think that is appalling," Clear said.
In fact, the Harm Reduction Coalition wrote a letter to Moon last month urging him to take action. The letter called on Moon to "condemn China's use of executions and death sentences to commemorate International Day Against Drugs as severe human rights violations and to make a public call to halt this practice. Progress against the problem of drugs and related issues, including the HIV epidemic, must be founded upon a solid respect and enforcement of human rights for all," the letter stated.
"It's good that there have been no reported executions," said Clear, "but I don't think we can actually claim a victory if they are still using the day as a reason to sentence people to death."
Clear said that a number of regional human rights and harm reduction groups joined the Harm Reduction Coalition in sending letters to the UN urging it to intervene against states using the death penalty to mark anti-drug day. But a number of other groups decided to wait.
While there is some dissension in the harm reduction and human rights ranks about how best to go after the use of the death penalty in drug cases, an international movement against it is forming. The International Harm Reduction Association and Human Rights Watch are spearheading a campaign centered on October 10, the international day against the death penalty.
"We've agreed to work with all the regional networks in an effort coordinated by Human Rights Watch and IHRA," said Clear. "That will happen later this year."
If the excesses of the international anti-drug day are drawing criticism, so is UNODC's annual report, with critics calling it everything from rose-tinted to meaningless. UNODC claimed that coca production was down in the Andes, a claim undercut by US figures released just weeks earlier that showed an increase. Similarly, UNODC claimed success in eradicating opium production in Laos, which pales in significance compared to the massive increase in production in Afghanistan, which accounts for nearly 95% of the global supply.
"The methods of estimating global drug use and drug production are very imprecise and notoriously unstandardized," said Dutch drug policy researcher Peter Cohen. "The text will say what is needed at the moment. It is tailored to cater to global moods and UN funding needs. All of these UN drug reports are political expressions, and the UNODC's trick is to somehow make people believe their Politburo reports have some significance," he argued. "It's best to ignore them."
The European Coalition for Just and Effective Drug Policies (ENCOD) was similarly scathing, noting that while UNODC claimed overall stability, "repression is rising." Stability means the status quo, ENCOD complained: "Stability in this case means that current drug policies place the heaviest burden among those who are already among the most marginalized in the first place… Stability means an escalation of law enforcement and repression… Stability means a war against minorities," the group continued, mentioning both Laos, where the internal resettlement of indigenous ethnic communities that formerly grew opium has pushed mortality rates through the roof, and the United States, where racial minorities are much more likely to be incarcerated on drug charges.
The UNODC looks at global drug supplies and consumption and claims victory by running hard just to stay in the same place. The harm reduction, human rights, and drug reform community looks at the same data and sees the latest installment of a disastrous global drug prohibition regime.
(Click here for commentary by David Borden on this issue.)